What’s Your Climate Career Ambition?

by Diana Drake

Climate action is a mindset – and one that feels increasingly critical on a global scale.

At the recent virtual Earth Day Summit, the U.S. committed to cutting emissions by half by the end of the decade and integrating climate change into the country’s national security and foreign policy. Other countries deepened their climate goals, as well, in what can only be described as intense, global, climate ambition.

Inside Climate Tech

That climate ambition extends to Generation Z, as you think about how climate change fits into your lives. The rising levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases that are damaging the planet not only spark activism, but also a desire to go to work on creating sustainable solutions.

“I genuinely believe climate change is the challenge of the century,” says Andrew Yu, a sophomore at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. “As a member of Generation Z…it’s up to us to have a say in this and an actual goal.”

Andrew Yu, co-founder of Penn Climate Ventures.

Yu co-founded Penn Climate Ventures, a new student organization at Penn that wants to build a career pipeline in climate tech that is as robust as career pipelines for finance or consulting. In other words, he wants more people to follow a climate-related career path, with an emphasis on new and transformational innovations.

“The broader definition of climate careers is that you can be an environmental scientist, you can work in policy, you can be doing lab research and creating cool innovations. You can be a business person and try to scale those innovations. You can work in marketing and try to change consumer behavior. You can be an educator and try to teach the importance of climate to students and to the next generation. You can invest in climate-forward companies as an investor. Climate careers are very, very broad,” notes Yu. “A lot of people are interested in environmental science and studies, and they are gaining knowledge about the environment. But I think we’re at a point where knowing that the world is spiraling out of control is not all that we can be doing. We need to take action to mitigate that or help us adapt as the world continues to change. That’s where climate tech enters the space.”

“There will be a space to innovate in climate no matter where you go.” — Andrew Yu, Co-founder, Penn Climate Ventures

Climate tech involves building interesting innovations that can reduce emissions or draw down emissions by collecting carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases from the air. It is also about creating a more efficient grid, electrifying society as a whole, including cars and planes. “There is a lot to be done to make most aspects of business and daily life more sustainable. A lot of that requires some interesting innovations to get there,” says Yu.

A group of Penn and Wharton students recently won second place in Penn Climate Ventures’ first student climate startup competition. The group’s climate-tech project, Folia, is targeting leftover malt from beer production to be used as animal feed and even in bread products. The main goal: diverting greenhouse gas-generating waste away from landfills by connecting food waste producers with companies that can use the byproducts.

‘Cleaner and More Sustainable’

Dennis Woodside, president of Impossible Foods, a Silicon Valley-based company that produces plant-based substitutes for meat products, made a virtual appearance at Penn Climate Ventures’ event to provide insight into his business and the broader sector of climate tech. Impossible Foods’ mission – to eliminate the need for any animal-based proteins – is in large part climate-driven. The animal agriculture industry accounts for 17% of total greenhouse gas emissions (see related KWHS Stories tab).

“As we get closer and closer to an environmental crisis, the world is going to wake up,” said Woodside, who was previously chief operating officer of Dropbox and began his career with Google. His best advice for a generation that wants to make a difference through climate careers and climate tech: seek out learning opportunities and observe the world around you.

“A lot of life is just showing up and hearing an idea that you say, maybe I’m not going to act on that now but in three years you never know what kind of connection you’ll make,” said Woodside. “When I was at Stanford [University], there were people coming on campus all the time. You just absorb ideas and don’t quite know how those ideas are going to bounce around in your head, and someday something comes along that just makes sense.”

He also sees incredible opportunity for climate-tech innovation related to the food industry, nuclear power, as well as cleaning the power that the world currently generates. “If you look around, so many areas are going to have to change where there is an incumbent industry that is going to have to get disrupted by something cleaner and more sustainable,” he said. “I would look there and pay attention.”

Yu, who plans to start his own climate tech company this summer with a group of friends from high school, has thought deeply about his personal mission to champion climate careers.

“On one side, you need to build skills and on the other side you need to know about the problem you want to solve,” says Yu, who is also pursuing his interest in data science, which he hopes to apply to his work around climate change. “Explore all the problems that plague the world. If you’re interested in climate change, think about which issues you want to solve. Do you want to help in the energy transition? Do you want to help combat food waste? Do you want to push the world into a more circular economy and combat plastic waste? A lot of stuff needs to be done.”

And becoming a climate-tech entrepreneur is not the only onramp to making a difference. Many existing public and private businesses, like Impossible Foods and Tesla, are climate-focused, or need to strengthen their sensitivity toward climate issues with a little help from Gen Z.

“For most businesses to survive at the end of the century, they’re all going to have to be climate forward in some way. There will be a space to innovate in climate no matter where you go,” suggests Yu. “Energy and agriculture need a lot of work because most emissions come from those two sectors. For longer term, you can do whatever you want, just make sure you have climate in mind.”

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Conversation Starters

Do you plan to go into a climate career? How are you preparing? Share your story in the comment section of this article.

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Why are Dennis Woodside and Impossible Foods part of a discussion on climate careers? How does this business relate to climate action? Use the Related KWHS Stories tab for more details.

10 comments on “What’s Your Climate Career Ambition?

  1. With gen-z, climate change is at greater heights than ever before due to social media and awareness being spread through education as well. I also believe that innovation is also climbing with the introduction of new technologies that make it easier for us to solve everyday conflicts as well as larger, global problems such as climate change. Additionally, the diversity in the methods of spreading awareness about climate change and directly participating in reducing global warming has created an environment where many businesses and people can help. Car companies are introducing hybrid and all electric models and state and federal governments are pairing up with them to offer rebates when purchasing one. Tesla offers a rebate of around $2000 dollars on all cars with a base price of under $42,000, giving incentives for consumers to purchase their vehicles, therefore reducing their carbon footprint. Tech giants such as Apple and Google have pledged to plant forests and use cleaner renewable energy to compensate for their emissions. Additionally, Amazon and Google sell climate tech such as turbines and solar panels to assist others in moving towards reduced carbon emissions. It is interesting to see how companies are starting to move towards eco-friendly methods by using their technology to have an impact on a world in which they were a part of global warming themselves.

  2. According to my parents and apartment super, climate change was not a major issue for Generation X; Gen. X deemed it as a waste of Generation Z’s time and suggested that people should focus on something more useful. I would like to thank Andrew Yu for emphasizing the issue of global warming and tech. His comments, such as pointing out how there are many opportunities to technologically innovate the environment, cause the reader to reflect on their climate change ambitions. Think about the smell of the air, the noise you hear, the scenery before you. What can you do to improve the natural life around you? Indeed, we are in an advanced world with abundant artificial intelligence, certainly we will be able to utilize technology to enhance the health of our Earth.

  3. I was already familiar with the idea that the environmental concerns of the modern-world required addressing. From the melting of polar ice caps, increasing global temperatures, and rapid pollution of metropolitan hubs across the planet, the situation looks bleak. Ever since the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, and the accompanying advent of a host of technological innovations aimed at increasing production/qualities of life, we have lost sight of the toll it takes on our shared habitat.
    However, the rhetoric and the need for innovation highlighted within the article inspired me to develop a better understanding of the topic, founded on empirical research. I discovered that the price of pollution and the grim reality it constitutes had already risen to the forefront of national concern within the United States and abroad. In fact, current projections by OECD indicated that in order to meet the near 80% increase in energy demand by 2050, there will be a 50% increase in the emission of greenhouse gases. Such a phenomena would have unfathomable consequences on an environment that is already being strained to the largest extent in human history. Therefore, it has become essential to find a solution aimed at solving the climate crisis of our time.
    What truly caught my attention regarding this article was the demographic that was tasked with formulating a solution. It wasn’t going to be the thinkers of the enlightenment, the innovators of the 20th century, or even the developers of the factory system. It would be Generation Z. That fact has not only stood prominent within the article for me, but also helped me discover a rejuvenated passion for environmental involvement. Having been a member of local conservation and sustainability groups, such as NJSSC (New Jersey Student Sustainability Coalition), I have participated in environmental preservation. However, the understanding conveyed by the article, that this problem would be the key concern of the following century and of this generation, allowed me to further develop a passion, and more importantly as I hope for others as well, a will to act.
    As mentioned within the article, large corporations do have a responsibility to act with the preservation of the environment in mind. In fact, certain empirical work demonstrates that a mere 100 businesses are currently responsible for 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the people and the government to institute environmental-friendly legislation. However, as shown by Andrew Yu (co-founder of Penn Climate Ventures), the time to act on an individual scale is now. Whether that choice to act constitutes the founding of an organization, the spreading of awareness, or even something as simple as learning to recycle, it is valuable. We have been divided by cultural, linguistic, and racial backgrounds for much of our existence, but the issue of climate change is here to pose a detrimental consequence, regardless of such identities. Only through individual action on a global scale, can such a problem be combated. The time to act is now, and every contribution is truly essential.

    • Industrial pollution, deforestation, rising sea levels, and the burning of fossil fuels. The science is self-evident. Human activity is primarily causing the world to warm at a dangerous pace. If we fail to act now, climate change will inevitably affect Earth’s future. Aravind, you continue to expand on this reality when you state, “the situation looks bleak”. You provide clear-cut examples and explanations for this rapid decline of the environment. You mention that businesses wish to enhance the quality of their products but that this process also hurts the environment. After reading this unfortunate news “by 2050, there will be a 50% increase in the emission of greenhouse gases”, I did some research in hopes of finding a positive development of those trends. To my relief and surprise, I found that 80% of major companies are reporting on their shifts towards sustainability. Companies like Ford, Disney, and Nike are just a few examples. Automobile companies are known to be amongst the biggest polluters. However, the Ford Motor Company is changing that record. The company employs sustainable fabrics and fuel efficiency in its vehicles, while 80% of the metal content in Ford Focus and Ford Escape vehicles is recyclable. Disney is determined to employ zero net direct greenhouse gas emission policies in all its facilities and reduce direct GHG emissions by reducing electrical consumption. Nike is also taking ecological initiatives, especially using recyclable materials such as polyester, in their products. These large corporations are starting to showcase climate change initiatives, and that’s a huge step towards securing a safer future.

      I disagree with your comment that Gen Z would be the ones to solve climate change. I firmly believe that the contributions of Gen Z alone are not sufficient. With additional measures from baby boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y(millennials), those generations taking up about 60% of the human population according to STATISTA, we will be in a better position to address environmental issues. We rarely see as many people in the older generations taking the initiative against climate change. The reason being that the older generations are more likely to stick to the measures that have conveniently assisted them over time. Many people are aware of the consequences that climate change shows, however, only until you follow through with the awareness by taking action, then you do something that matters. You do something that makes a difference. I believe that the older gen falls more in the category of being aware of the consequences of climate change but would rather stay in their comfort zone. Many Gen X baby boomers refuse to drive electric cars, not primarily because they don’t understand that it saves the environment, but because gas cars are what they grew up with and trust gas safety more than green. My parents are also part of this Gen X, and although they understand the current climate issues, they do not believe it is a truly urgent situation. By driving gas cars for more than 35 years, my parents have already grown accustomed to this habit and believe it is more secure for their safety on the road to stick with a vehicle that has been part of their whole lives. With about half of the population with this mentality, we won’t formulate any solution until we change this mindset and everyone takes action. The previous generations and Gen Z need to work together and communicate how important this issue is; otherwise, there may not be a future for subsequent generations. Until then, we need to take individual action to alleviate this situation. Regardless of your individuality, race, gender, and age, climate change cannot and will not be fully rectified until everyone cooperates.

      Speaking of which, Avarind, you also mentioned that the person’s race and culture do not matter, as long as they contribute. I completely agree with this. Racial injustice continues to exist, dividing others, but we can all agree that changing climate concerns is a shared objective. Individuals working to solve climate issues will have a positive impact in the long run. We are slowly but unquestionably working towards a common goal.

  4. Climate change is a problem that transcends borders and could potentially be the final extinction event that wipes all life off the face of our planet. After decades of environmental neglect, the burden of “fixing” planet Earth now falls on the shoulders of Gen-Z. As heroic as this sounds, how true is this statement? According to many young climate activists, Gen-Z is leading the charge when it comes to advocating for better environmental policy. I’m proud to admit that I am a part of Gen-Z and that I love to recycle all the plastic bottles that I use. But my contributions are certainly not enough. I’m inspired by Andrew Yu’s passion for generating more interest in climate careers among students, but I can’t help wondering how sustainable these careers are. We currently live in a society where most government and corporate positions are held by members of Gen-X, who are far less concerned about climate change than millennials and Gen-Z. Jon D. Miller, the author of “The Generational X Report”, found that Gen-X’s concern for climate change in 2011 was only 16%, down from 22% in 2009. I find it difficult to accept the current state of climate change activism as a success story; it is critical that we convince the older generations if we want to make any real progress in our time.

  5. Bringing in more people into climate action through climate careers is in fact a really great intuition, however there’s a method that draws people’s attention effectively this could also put climate change careers in spotlight in certain communities and this is sentiment, as an Indian it is clear to me, with the patriotism that is present here, people are frightfully passionate about things they love. With the help of psychology and sentiment we can convince people (through social media, daily news and other things individuals use or see in a daily basis) to make minor changes in their lives, which will all add up and have a positive impact towards climate change. goals.

  6. When I was lobbying Congress to pass the House of Representative’s 160 Bill to conserve and restore our coral reefs, I pointed to how scientists from the 2020 Ocean Sciences Meeting warned that 80% of coral reefs will disappear over the next 20 years as a result of climate change. My experience at this mock session took part during a science expert briefing at the National Ocean Sciences Bowl. I argued that we needed to invest in technology in order to streamline our efforts. I proposed more funding for remote sensing since this innovation provides us with a faster and cheaper way of identifying vulnerable reef areas and assessing transplantation efforts.

    Like Dennis Woodside of Impossible Foods, I believe that climate-tech innovation can really transform the way we address global warming, environmental pollution, or other existential threats. We have to be smarter about how we use our resources and set up formal businesses to develop cleaner and recyclable products. I agree with Andrew Yu that there is lots of “space to innovate.” Whether it is trapping carbon dioxide with novel technology, decreasing greenhouse gases via cleaner energy sources, or supporting native planting materials to decrease run-off, we can all find our niche.

    For me, I foresee myself continuing to advocate for the conservation of our coral reefs. I will build upon how I argued that global warming reduces our natural barriers to storm surges and floods. Without coral reefs, flood damage increases to $272 billion in a 100-year storm event. Losing just 1 meter of reef increases flood-related damages by $4 billion. Reading about climate career ambitions has motivated me to do more to protect mother Earth and to improve our daily lives. I too have an ambition to continue my studies and one day, set up a technology driven company to save corals. This way, I can be at the forefront of Yu’s Gen Z entrepreneurial movement.

    • Vera, I admire your passion for climate activism, specifically in your alignment of Yu’s hope for a sustainable future through the conservation of coral reefs. I am fascinated by your proposal and resonate with your dedication to supporting causes towards sustainability. I, however, lie on the other side of your proposals. argued that we needed to invest in technology in order to streamline our efforts. I believe that climate-tech innovation is crucial to improving our society, and for me, the niche that you highlighted lies in the agriculture technology sector. Because of climate-aware individuals like you, my idea for an agricultural robot to prevent the spread of diseases among crops has become a company spearing through the R&D phase with active investors and partners.
      According to the Federal Agriculture Organization, ⅓ of food produced for human consumption is lost and wasted every year. Diseases remain the leading cause behind such crop loss, costing the global economy 220 billion dollars annually and destroying 20 million pounds of viable produce. The large landfills emit 1.6 billion tons of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is more toxic than carbon dioxide. In order to address these diseases, I created AgriVision, the fully autonomous robot that will monitor and protect crops via advanced image processing and machine learning. Like you and Yu noted, there needs to be heavy research in order to push industries in a more sustainable direction. For me, I discovered hyperspectral cameras, devices that could scan images in wavelengths far beyond the normal spectrum, to help farmers detect early signs of disease. In the spirit of Yu’s calling for entrepreneurs of our generation, I hope that this project will revolutionize the future of agriculture with AgriVision: the power of solving the problems at the root.

  7. Explore all the problems that plague the world….and think about which issues you want to solve,” says Yu. For me that issue is plastic.

    I had the fortune of joining a group of motivated peers across the country to create “Smart Recycling Now.” Our goal was to address a new source of plastic pollution born out of the COVID pandemic, the surgical mask, recycle the plastic in these masks into plastic lumber, and use that lumber to build owl homes for an endangered owl population. This was our version of a circular economy, a
    lesson that transformed my way of looking at other businesses and which started my understanding of business sustainability. This experience helped set my interests on a climate career path.

    I have had a lifelong love of the oceans and from this, my growing focus has become plastic in the oceans. Plastic ocean pollution is intricately linked to climate change with degrading plastic releasing greenhouse gases and microplastics impeding the ability of plankton to convert carbon dioxide into
    oxygen. Climate change and the oceans are caught in a vicious cycle. The warming oceans, full of plastic, endanger entire ecosystems and our planet’s largest carbon sink.

    Climate tech-innovation will be crucial in addressing today’s issues of climate change, particularly in the energy and agriculture sectors. Equally important is addressing the estimated 200 million metric tons of plastic circulating the world’s oceans. Notpla, a London-based start-up, has produced a seaweed and
    plant-based alternative to single-use plastic. (Single-use plastic accounts for approximately 40% of plastic produced yearly.) Boyan Slat of The Ocean Cleanup has engineered floating barriers to trap plastic not just in the oceans but at its source in the world’s most polluted rivers. One of their goals is to reduce the
    80,000 tons of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in half by 2025.

    I agree with Yu that Generation Z will be a driving force toward any change in saving our planet. (Founders of both Notpla and The Ocean Cleanup were all college aged students.) More and more of our younger generation are becoming united in our concern and passion to do something for our planet. Yu’s Penn Climate Ventures is an important career pipeline and one example of how Generation Z members can support each other in making a climate career a reality.

    I hope one day to be an entrepreneur who can push the world into a more circular economy to combat plastic waste. “There will be a space to innovate in climate no matter where you go,” says Yu. For now, I continue to take courses outside of school and meet students from around the country and globe. I
    continue to educate my peers and the younger students through school clubs and organizations. One project I am now working on is an educational program to teach grade school kids about the plastics problem and why recycling is so important. Empower them with some problem-solving skills regarding
    the environment now and they will grow up to help us all in the future.

    Woodside’s advice to seek out learning opportunities and make connections with people and ideas is what makes this future field so exciting. It is a camaraderie of spirit with all of us united in a very worthwhile goal to save our planet. I can’t ask for a better career ambition.

  8. The article’s focus on climate tech and the crucial role of Generation Z in spearheading sustainable solutions resonates profoundly with my experiences in environmental impact. The words of Andrew Yu, the co-founder of Penn Climate Ventures, struck a particular chord with me.

    Throughout my 16 years on this planet, my summers spent in Greece were synonymous with crystal blue seas, clear skies, and verdant landscapes. However, I started to realize that littering and pollution started to mar the beauty of the region. There would be times when the beautiful sea was filled with trash from huge cruise ships that had flushed onto the shore. This frustrated me, as we could not spend our summers like we had used to. I decided to create a clean-up committee in our village; The sight of cleaned-up shores and revitalized local fauna was a small but significant victory for us all. Over 100 people came to help us clean up the beach, and this eventually caught the attention of the local government, who were planning a sustainable tourism project for Rhodes. They saw the potential in our initiative, and I was able to rally a team of dedicated volunteers from the beach clean-up to join this cause, which included conducting research and advocating for local businesses to adopt sustainable practices.

    Much like Andrew Yu and Penn Climate Ventures, our objective was not only to address an immediate problem – in our case, pollution and unsustainable tourism practices – but also to create a systemic shift toward sustainability. We adopted a mindset that views environmental responsibility as an integral part of our lives and businesses. Whether one is an environmental scientist, a policymaker, or a local business owner, each role has the potential and the responsibility to contribute to a sustainable future.

    The Rhodes project brought to life what Yu described as the “broader definition of climate careers.” We saw firsthand how you could be an advocate, an educator, or an entrepreneur and still substantially contribute to the environment. The push towards sustainability often requires traditional businesses to reinvent themselves, to disrupt the status quo. Dennis Woodside’s advice to “observe the world around you” and be ready to act upon ideas resonates here. I find that the most impactful ideas often sprout from a keen observation of local practices and a deep understanding of the environmental context.

    Yu’s statement, “There will be a space to innovate in climate no matter where you go,” encapsulates the ethos of our project. I recognized that the key to sustainability lies in integrating the notion of climate consciousness into every aspect of our lives, whether it be energy consumption, waste management, or tourism.

    This article highlights that the urgency of climate action is not confined to a singular field or profession but requires a collective effort. The call to sustainability is a universal one. It requires us all, especially the younger generation, to embrace the mindset of climate action in our careers and lives.

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